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WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Aucklanders returned to nightclubs, cinemas and cafes on Friday as New Zealand's biggest city exited pandemic lockdown after more than 100 days.
Retailers threw open their doors to vaccinated customers as the country ended lockdowns and moved into a new 'traffic light system' that rates regions as red, orange or green depending on their level of exposure to COVID-19 and vaccination rates.
Auckland, the epicentre of the country's Delta outbreak, will start at red, making face masks mandatory and putting limits on gatherings at public places.
Bars, nightclubs and restaurants can open to guests with vaccine certificates but with a limit of 100 people and 1 metre social distancing. Outdoor events are allowed.
"I've missed it a lot, I can't wait to smash a Guinness and have a boogie," one nightclub attendee in Auckland said.
Along with its geographic isolation, New Zealand enforced some of the tightest pandemic restrictions among OECD nations in 2020, keeping the country largely COVID-19 free and helping its economy bounce back faster than many of its peers.
But it failed to control an outbreak of the highly contagious Delta variant this year and shifted to a strategy of living with the virus with vaccinations and other measures. Some 90% of eligible Aucklanders are now fully vaccinated.
Auckland's domestic border curbs are still in place and will ease on Dec 15 allowing residents to travel across the country for Christmas and the summer break.
With an average 150 new Delta cases reported each week, mostly in Auckland, its reopening has raised concerns that COVID-19 will spread more rapidly across the country and pose risks to the marginalised Maori community https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/new-zealands-covid-19-re-opening-plans-leave-maori-feeling-exposed-2021-12-02.
But for now, businesses are cheering the move.
"It's a beautiful space that we've got and it's really nice just to be able to open that up to the neighbourhood again, so that's cool," Nigel Cottle, owner of Auckland based cafe 'Crave'.
(Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Lincoln Feast)